If you’ve ever heard the phrase “We need to talk” from your significant other, boss, or family member, there isn’t much in the way of positivity coming your way. It is a moment where you have to have an internal reckoning with yourself about what is to come. I wrote in the past about China’s efforts to build their professional league by pilfering Europe’s finest talents with ludicrous contracts and fees. That project eventually fell flat when owners didn’t get the desired ROI on that cash-splashing. So far, Saudi Arabia is following a similar playbook and then some. As much as it pains me to say, we need to have a talk about Saudi Arabia.
Now this isn’t the time or the place to shine a light on the Kingdom’s numerous geopolitical atrocities and borderline barbaric social sentiments. There is many a significantly more qualified journalist to put all of that out into the world. My charge for this piece is to talk about how the Saudi Pro League’s members will influence the way business is done in the sport of football globally and more important how that affects Liverpool Football Club.
The way Saudi Arabia has gone about things in 2023 is eerily similar to how things started with the Chinese League. It all started with an aging striker looking to prove they still had something left in the tank. Chelsea subsequently found a way to offload a significant portion of their roster for exorbitant fees. People made jokes and concocted memes in Premier League fan circles. Then the Chinese Super League started targeting OUR targets. I remember vividly seeing red (no pun intended) as Alex Teixeira, Marko Arnautovic, and Yannick Carrasco all took the money and ran.
That is kind of how we as Liverpool supporters looked at this current Saudi project. It was funny to see Cristiano Ronaldo have no other recourse and end up in the league. Seeing Chelsea shed some of the 946 players on their first team and making money from it felt frustrating. Karim Benzema getting his bag felt like an end of an era at Real Madrid. Seeing links to countless World Cup heroes, most notably Lionel Messi and Kylian Mbappe, left us collectively wondering if this was real life. But it wasn’t until Roberto Firmino signed in Saudi Arabia over Juventus that things started to come into focus.
BOBBY ARABIA AND WHAT FOLLOWED
Now I am not one to blame somebody for taking a dubious paycheck, especially with the number of zeroes on it the Saudi Pro League is providing. Also, Bobby got his proper sendoff into the sunset with the club. We all knew he was going and planned accordingly as fans and as a club. The same went for when chatter began with Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. We all said, “Good for Ox, I hope he can reboot his career and get paid handsomely to do so.” There are many Reds in the coaching ranks in Saudi Arabia as well so the thought of some of our youth products getting playing time in the Gulf was also a thought that crossed our minds. But all that understanding went out the window when the Hendo situation began.
Just when the club thought it had sorted its midfield out, Al-Etiffaq came in and etiffaqed it all up. Our captain was going to go. It almost felt like a FIFA career-mode moment. Sure, Lokomotiv Moscow wants to put in a bid for Mo Salah. Go home FIFA, you’re drunk. Until a concrete story came out from a concrete source, it was just a bunch of what if’s. What if our current captain played for our old captain? What if the 700k-a-week figure is not bullshit?
SAUDI ARABIA STOLE OUR LUNCH MONEY
After a couple of weeks of back and forth, we could no longer hold out hope. Jordan Henderson is no longer a member of Liverpool after 12 years of service. Fabinho could be the next one to depart, contingent on his canine companions being allowed into Saudi Arabia. For all of this duo’s faults at this stage of their careers, them leaving leaves a chasm in our roster. And with James Milner’s departure earlier on, leadership will have to come from different sources in 2023-24. What went from a passive experience has now become rolling existential dread. Does Saudi Arabia want any more of our players? Worse, are they going to come in and swoop on the ones we are targeting to replace the ones we’ve lost?
I wish I had more answers than questions at this stage of the Saudi Pro League’s more than halfhearted foray into the beautiful game. All the talk of nation-states owning clubs like Newcastle, City, and PSG now have this monolith creeping closer and closer. It is frightening to see what a league with endless amounts of Scrooge McDuck pools of cash will be able to accomplish if they don’t lose interest. From these initial outlays, I can’t see this being China 2.0.
KEEPING MY HEAD UP TO LOOK AHEAD
I have been proven wrong about so many things so many times. Please football gods, let this be another one of those times. Sure, it won’t hurt to have another avenue to keep some of the “haves” of the footballing world honest. But the thing that scares me the most is that Saudi Arabia’s influence reaches the point where it isn’t just about throwing money at the best footballers. Jordan Henderson is the perfect example. Saudi money is making a hypocrite out of one of the most vocal advocates for a litany of causes, most of all LGBTQ+ rights, and didn’t even break a sweat.
If this stays as just a place for players to get their goals and assists and make it so that twelve generations of their family afterward don’t need to lift a single finger, I’ll bite my tongue. But when it gets past that and starts bleeding into everything I didn’t want to dive into with this article, we’re going to need to talk even more about Saudi Arabia.